Feature

Escalating bloodshed in Syria

The Syrian military stepped up its assault on the rebel stronghold of Homs.

What happened?Ignoring international demands for a cease-fire, the Syrian military this week stepped up its assault on the rebel stronghold of Homs by sending in ground troops and tanks. The escalation came after four weeks of relentless bombardment of the city’s opposition-held neighborhoods, in which hundreds have been killed. In Geneva, the U.N. Human Rights Council condemned Damascus for “unspeakable violations,” causing the Syrian envoy to storm out. Earlier, the more than 60 nations of the Friends of Syria group, meeting in Tunisia, called for President Bashar al-Assad to resign, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Russia and China’s continued support for him was “despicable.”

In defiance of international pressure, Assad’s regime staged a referendum on a new constitution and claimed it was overwhelmingly approved. The document purports to allow multiple parties in a country that has been ruled by the Baath Party since 1963. The opposition boycotted the vote, which was widely seen as a sham.

What the editorials saidIt’s time to arm the rebels, said The New Republic. Months of diplomacy have utterly failed Syria. Thousands of people have died, and thousands more will die if the West does not turn to military options to stop Assad’s brutal onslaught. No one, of course, wants American troops involved in yet another war. But we simply must help the rebels stop Assad’s mass murder, “by arming them or using some degree of airpower on their behalf, or both.”

Who, exactly, would be armed? asked The Christian Science Monitor. The Syrian opposition is badly splintered. At the Friends of Syria conference, the various groups—some armed, some pacifist—“still put issues of ethnicity and religion, not to mention contending claims for legitimacy and leadership, over the higher ideals of the Arab Spring.” This fragmentation makes all options murky.

What the columnists saidThere is an alternative to arming the rebels, said Anne-Marie Slaughter in The New York Times. To protect all Syrians, “no-kill zones” could be set up near the Turkish, Lebanese, and Jordanian borders, which could be easily accessed by the Red Cross. The Free Syrian Army, armed by its neighbors, would control these zones. Special forces from Qatar and Turkey, and even Britain and France, would assist the rebels with intelligence. The condition for such aid would be “that it be used defensively—only to stop attacks by the Syrian military or to clear out government forces that dare to attack the no-kill zones.” This would make it easier for Syrian troops to defect, and “create zones of peace in what are now zones of death.”

Such a plan “ignores basic military realities,” said Stephen Walt in ForeignPolicy.com. Maybe you can distinguish between defensive and offensive fighting on paper, but not in practice. “What sounds at first like a noble effort to protect civilians would quickly turn into offensive action against a despised regime.” The resulting protracted conflict would “make the present carnage look mild by comparison.” Indeed, any outside intervention in Syria would likely make things worse, said Paul Vallely in the London Independent. Syria has nerve gas, chemical weapons, and a standing army of a quarter of a million troops. “And it has even bigger friends in the playground.” Russia and China will block any action in the U.N., and Iran has already sent warships to Syria. Worse, “Western spooks fear that the inchoate anti-Assad coalition could hide a potent cohort of jihadists,” an anxiety fed by the recent endorsement of the Syrian rebels by al Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

There’s another solution: the Yemen model, said Jane Harman in The Wall Street Journal. The U.S. could offer Assad the same immunity arrangement that former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh received “in exchange for a quiet departure from power.” Assad’s exit would end the carnage in Homs without all the risks of arming rebels we don’t really know. Once he’s gone, a unity government could take shape. “If Assad were allowed to leave with a guarantee of safe haven, the real work of encouraging a Syrian-led transition to a democratic and pluralistic political system could finally begin.”

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